Even as the D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) Office of Teaching and Learning continued developing a curriculum to enhance the online learning experience, teachers received “Return to In-Person Work” guidelines that prompted them to indicate their ability to teach in a school building next fall.

The online form raised a red flag among Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) officials who’ve since discouraged teachers from signing it, primarily out of concern about the legal ramifications and a belief that teachers have been purposely excluded from discussions about plans for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Teachers like Langston Tingling-Clemmons echoed those sentiments, telling The Informer that DCPS officials appear to be gearing up for a reopening without any regard for students’ and teachers’ health, and that of the greater public.

“This seems like it is locked in step with decisions to prematurely open the states to help assuage fears and rebuild the economy rather than seeing that lives be the priority,” said Tingling-Clemmons, a teacher at Jefferson Middle School Academy in Southwest.

Tingling-Clemmons expressed fears that resuming in-person instruction could reverse progress made over the months to curb coronavirus’ spread. He also noted that another abrupt mid-year change to structure could further impede students’ academic progress.

In advocating for WTU’s involvement, Tingling-Clemmons suggested that the ReOpenDC Advisory Group takes into account scheduling conflicts that DCPS teachers with children in the charter school system could face if all public schools reopen, while some charter schools continue distance learning.

“Teachers are concerned that we have an unsafe work environment for us and our students,” Tingling-Clemmons continued.

“In a lot of ways, we’re frustrated. We don’t believe our opinion is that political. I have high doubts that we’ll be represented on the [education and childcare] committee [of the ReOpenDC Advisory Group], but I think our disagreement with the chancellor and the mayor could have larger effects on how that committee is planning to move forward.”

WTU President Elizabeth Davis recently wrote a letter asking DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee to rescind the guidelines for returning to in-person work. The letter also called for Ferebee to engage teachers in dialogue about a safe reopening and release parent, student and teacher survey data about citywide enrollment trends.

DCPS didn’t answer The Informer’s inquiry about whether it would follow through on the first demand.

Davis’ letter came shortly after the release of WTU’s Reopening Schools report, which recognized DCPS employees’ role as caretakers to parents and children and criticized the advisory committee’s recommendation to reopen schools during Phase 3. In touting the need for balancing the demands of in-person and virtual teaching, the report indicated an investment of $11 million as a means of expanding student laptop access.

Central to the battle between WTU and the DCPS was a recommendation that teachers be included in decisions about whether public schools reopen and under what conditions.

In her recent communique to DCPS, Davis said the central office gave WTU little opportunity to review the return-to-in-person-work guidelines that described the implementation of a hybrid learning model in the fall and the enforcement of social distancing and personal protective equipment protocols in school buildings.

DCPS’ five-page document also mentioned daily health screenings taking place in school buildings, and employees receiving disposable masks, hand sanitizers, and cleaning supplies. Staff members would also be eligible for up to 10 weeks of paid sick leave and expanded medical family leave for reasons related to COVID-19, according to the document.

“DCPS has decided to move forward without engaging the union, our members, or the community in a meaningful dialogue about what education in our public schools will look like in the fall,” WTU’s June 30 letter said. “Unfortunately, this move has eroded any trust that he has managed to build with teachers,” added.

In the weeks leading up to the end of a newly virtual 2019-2020 academic year, the District has joined the states in conducting phased reopenings. Some governors have since rolled back parts of their plan amid the resurgence of coronavirus cases in Florida and elsewhere. In the D.C. metropolitan area, Northern Virginia has drawn criticism for jumping ahead of its neighbors to Phase 3.

As of July 4, the District has reported 10,482 positive coronavirus cases. While the DC Department of Health has reported a sustained decrease in illnesses and deaths over the last few weeks, experts and public officials alike continue to advise residents — particularly those with underlying conditions — to practice caution.

With a primary immunodeficiency disease, the stakes are that much higher for Patti Nelson, an art teacher who would rather teach in person, but is vehemently against any situation that disregards science and risks safety.

Nelson, an employee at Barnard Elementary School in Northwest, recounted being under the impression that, with the Office of Teaching and Learning’s ongoing curriculum development, that the DCPS central office would provide some teachers the flexibility to work at home.

What Nelson recalled happening instead was receiving a survey and guidelines for returning to in-person work that offered no opportunity to decline to work in person this fall. Nelson said this took place just hours after receiving documentation from a doctor recommending the continuation of virtual teaching.

“If I go back and teach in person, I am absolutely going to end up in the hospital in critical condition or worse,” said Nelson, who expressed support for WTU’s memorandum of understanding about fall instruction plans.

“My doctors made it clear that I don’t make enough antibodies to fight off the coronavirus. I already have a risk of chronic pneumonia [and] I’m not the only teacher,” Nelson continued. “We have online teaching that will be going on, so why not offer at-risk people with at-risk family members these positions first. We haven’t met the CDC metrics of safety, so why are we opening schools? Why are we putting anybody at risk?”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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